Industrial Park concept: AU shows the way

Source: Industrial Park concept: AU shows the way | Sunday Mail (Local News)

Leroy Dzenga and Kuda Bwititi

WHEN Education 5.0, the Government policy which compels institutions of higher learning to focus on problem solving and value addition, was first introduced, there were fears about the way institutions, especially private universities, would react.

However, Africa University (AU), a Pan -African private university in Mutare, has been one of the most enthused implementers of the policy.

Due to the numerous projects going on simultaneously at the institution, one would be forgiven to mistake the campus for an industrial park for agriculture, manufacturing, a tech-hub or medical sciences.

The institution runs a thriving farm, which uses most of the 200 hectare land space.

They have a flourishing poultry project, while the piggery venture is widely regarded as one of the best in Manicaland province.

AU’s dairy farm produces hundreds of litres of milk a day in addition to having a processing machine that produces yoghurt and other value-added milk products.

In an interview with The Sunday Mail, AU farm manager Mr Trevor Mupofu said the university farm places emphasis on value addition.

“Our piggery project is different in that we are not doing pork, but we are doing breeder stock. We sell sows to those who want to venture into piggery projects and we are the best producers of breeding stock in Manicaland right now.

“Our dairy farm has 37 heifers of the Holstein breed. We do not graze them, but feed them in situ. The idea is to teach our students how you can maximise production even with little space. Currently each heifer produces around 18 litres per day and we are value adding most of the milk produced.

“We are in the process of refining our packaging so we can take our products to supermarkets. For now, we are covering only the surrounding market. We sell excess milk to Dairibord,” Mr Mupofu said.

In the last cropping season, they delivered 600 tonnes of maize to the Grain Marketing Board and are readying to harvest 40 hectares of wheat.

“Our students who are doing agriculture related projects are acquainted with the farm environment from the onset of their programmes. We ensure they have ‘practicals’ relevant to their programmes, they spend most of their learning time at the farm instead of the classroom,” Mr Mupofu added.

The university also has projects for fish farming, bee-keeping as well as rearing of sheep and rabbits.

Since its inception, AU has enjoyed cordial relations with different Government ministries and departments.

One of the standout relationships is with the Ministry of Health and Child Care on eradicating malaria.

In 2020, malaria killed an estimated 1 500 people while more than 300 000 people were infected with the disease, but AU’s Dean for the College of Health, Agriculture and Natural Sciences Professor Sungano Mharakurwa is bullish that starting this year, AU will provide the solution to eradicate malaria.

“Universities can be powerful agents in Zimbabwe’s transformation. Our vision is that each faculty should have relations with their relevant ministry and ensure that they feed them with findings from research. As of 2017, we signed an agreement with Ministry of Health and Child Care’s National Malaria Programme where our college provides technical data and live reference material to guide malaria control operations,” said Professor Mharakurwa.

Recently, AU got funding from USAID to establish a National Research and Reference Insectary, which will be the second in the country.

The state-of-the-art facility, whose launch has been set for October 22, is crucial in helping Zimbabwe to eradicate malaria.

“Our parent ministry and the Ministry of Health and Child Care will officially open the facility. It is a National Research and Reference Insectary which will help us provide technical data to guide malaria control. We receive specimens of suspected malaria transmitting mosquitoes from the MOHCC,” said Professor Mharakurwa.

The aura of experimentation is dominant within the university’s environs.

AU’s i5 Innovation Hub in a way resembles Silicon Valley in the United States.

Students with curious minds are given space to pitch, and develop their ideas from concept to product.

Mrs Blessing Gavaza, one of the administrators at the Innovation Hub, said the centre is premised on five principles; ideation, incubation, intellectual property, innovation and industrialisation.

“We have an open door policy where students with ideas come and present their ideas. We align them with experts who understand the field, for assessment and incubation. If we do not have the expertise here at AU, we also seek from industry and peer institutions.

“The facility is open to community members, primary and secondary schools in the area, as well as the lecturing staff itself. Currently, the innovation hub is trying to come up with a mask that matches the N95 face mask in protecting against Covid-19. They already have a Standards Association of Zimbabwe approved hand sanitiser on the retail market.

“We realised that there is a need to create linkages between industry and the classroom. This is why we have been signing MOUs with companies like Econet, TelOne so that we can have our innovation hub participants come up with solutions to problems which these and other companies may be facing in their operations,” said Mrs Gavaza.

One of their flagship patents at the institution is a biogas project, which is meant to combat deforestation by ensuring that households can generate power and heat from their organic waste.

They are also working on a vermiculture project with the nearby St Joseph’s High School.

When Covid-19 came, AU was already gravitating towards virtual learning with their smart classroom concept.

The idea was to try and ensure that their 3 000 plus students, most of them from different countries across the continent, can access lessons without necessarily travelling to Zimbabwe.

The plan and infrastructure came in handy when the pandemic emerged, with conditions that made physical interactions difficult, thus ensuring that AU was not significantly affected by Covid-19.

“Our classes moved online. We had scheduled lessons and we would then individually reach out to lecturers on areas that need clarification. Now that the conditions allow for some physical classes to happen, some who have practical components on their degree programmes are returning to campus,” said AU Student Representative Council president, Shannel Ziki.

Being a Christian university under the United Methodist Church, the sense of community has allowed them to help each other in times of need.

“As the student representatives, we meet at the beginning of each academic year to discuss how we will utilise resources allocated to us. We decided to send data allowances to students who were struggling to access classes online. This allowance was sent even to students outside Zimbabwe,” said Ziki.

AU students in different parts of the country also made donations to struggling families during lockdowns, an effort which saw the institution getting the Jairos Jiri Humanitarian Award at the national awards given by President Mnangagwa during the Heroes Day Commemorations.

AU acting vice chancellor, Professor Peter Mageto, who has been in charge of the institution since the death of Professor Munashe Furusa in January this year, said the university will continue to contribute to national development.

“My goal is for AU to become an entrepreneurial research university. This is an institution that does research with an aim to improve its students, staff, community and country. I pushed for, and it was accepted by the board, that we adopt a progressive research policy where we will be assisting staff and students with research financing and capacitation,” said Prof Mageto.

He said the university cannot be an ivory tower, and has to relate with surrounding institutions for its impact to be felt.

“We are building a strong component known as the AU business academy. This will be helping industry with business consultancies. We have already started, we helped TelOne and Zimra with some training meant to improve their efficiencies. We are hoping to expand to other organisations soon,” Professor Mageto.

AU identifies theology and agriculture as its core areas. However, they have been expanding their footprint seeking to ensure that they cover all possible bases.

With a wide portfolio, which now extends to hospitality, and a hotel facility awaiting Zimbabwe Tourism Authority certification, Prof Mageto and his team are determined to rewrite the African academia story.

So far, AU has done well to show that universities can become agents of Zimbabwe’s development and industrialisation, as prescribed by the Education 5.0 policy.